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Ride a Horse to Imbue Your Writing with Truth

If you write historical fiction that’s based in a time-frame prior to the invention of the car (and most is), here’s a tip: learn to ride a horse. It was virtually the only mode of transportation for most of our characters and the experience of riding long distances and/or the relationship that one had with a horse can add to your historical fiction. The good news is that I’ve found a place where one can learn from a woman who loves historical fiction almost as much as she loves her horses. It’s called Wind In Your Hair Stables in Wanship UT and it’s a joy.

Wanship is just 20 minutes from Park City UT and 45 minutes from Salt Lake City, an easy drive through lovely hilly country. The stables and grounds are artfully rustic and pristine, built with rough-hewn wood. The owner, Sueanne, has a marvelous,  Read More 

The Challenges of Writing Historical Fiction

I love historical fiction but it’s a recent appreciation and it was born of a reading of Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Suskind because it’s a historical setting but a modern novel form and it is incredibly artful; it is literature because the period of time involved is usedas another device to examine a universal truth. It’s not just a story of the building of a bridge or a queen, a beheading, a war. It’s art.

I think it’s important to remember that fiction, regardless of genre, setting or format, is about illuminating the human condition; it’s not about “gosh, something interesting happened.” That doesn’t work for modern stories either. It has to be “gosh, this interesting thing happened and look at the fascinating emotional transformations that happened as a result.”

But historical fiction faces at least two additional challenges,  Read More 

Paracelsus, Father of Modern Surgery and Chemistry

Here’s for “My Main Character Blog hop”

1) What is the name of your character? Is he/she fictional or a historic person?
a.Theo Paracelsus, a historic person, is considered the father of modern chemistry and was a brilliant scientist and renegade doctor of the 1400s. He published The Great Surgery Book in 1536, which was an astounding compendium of anatomy and surgical procedure.
2) When and where is the story set?
a. The Mandrake Broom is set in Europe during the witch-burning times 1465-1540 set mostly in Salerno, Italy and Paris, and centers on the fight to save medical knowledge. Paracelsus becomes the colleague and partner of my fictional main character, Luccia Alimenti, whose mandate was to carry the herbal and medical teachings of the famous Trotula throughout Europe. It’s my suggestion that their collaboration united the side of medicine from the wicca that was focused on herbs but not surgery, with the surgical side that cut but didn’t cure.
3) What should we know about him/her?
a. Paracelsus was an astoundingly free thinker, a physician, botanist and the first to champion the theories of psychology and toxicology. After a rigorous, traditional education, he became an itinerate doctor, traveling to battlefields and encampments of the poor to better understand disease and anatomy, which was unheard-of in his day.
4) What is the main conflict? What messes up his/her life?
a. Paracelsus was a eunuch because of an illness in his childhood and also developed a serious addiction to laudanum, an opiate. The central conflict in his life, though, was his rage against the medical establishment and its close-minded ways. He got a reputation for being incredibly arrogant and incendiary, and in some situations had to sneak out of town for fear of imprisonment. He railed against his colleagues, burning some medical textbooks as evidence of fraud.
5) What is the personal goal of the character?
a. Paracelsus had a hunger for medical knowledge and a refusal to settle for the limits of knowledge of the time. As a contemporary of Leonardo de Vinci and Copernicus, he championed scientific thought at a time when the Inquisition made that extremely dangerous.
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Should You Hide the Identities of People in Memoir or Fiction?

Should you hide the identities of people in your fiction or memoir? What’s the impact of revealing family secrets in your work? Two excellent takes on the subject in today’s New York Times Book Review. The decorated Francine Prose says go for broke, except with children: you’re their custodians and it isn’t fair. Otherwise, look at the great fiction/memoirs that have relied on real life and consider what would have been done to them if the writer had been reticent. Of course, she says, you have to be prepared for the consequences.

In counterpoint (though they’re somewhat allied) Leslie Jameson has a wonderful view of the subject. I’ve seen this frequently in my teaching at The Writing Salon: “There’s the danger that overly autobiographical writing will be hampered by serving too many gods (fidelity and artistry at once) or be crippled by the involution of its gaze, made less ambitious by the umbilical cord of its genesis in lived experience.” But actually, she says we’re all creating fictional ‘terrariums’ (love the metaphor) where a certain version of ourselves can survive. And utilizing real people in our work isn’t ‘mining’ or extracting, but creating a type of alchemy, more like agriculture with the truth as the seed.  Read More 

Lessons from AWP 2014

The first day of #AWP2014 ended brilliantly with Annie Proulx’s keynote, a witty, acerbic and delightful look at the history of publishing since the 1940s, the advances and retreats, the blindness of many to the changes until they were ‘cattle in the feedlot.’ With her hair sticking out in odd directions, a woman far older than I expected who rarely looked up from her script to make eye contact, she charmed the audience utterly and completely, nonetheless.

The panel discussions on craft were standing room only, all the aisles packed with people sitting on the floor, as opposed to the sessions on marketing or publishing. As this is my first AWP, I would say this is predominantly a writer’s conference, or maybe that they’ve underestimated how many writers vs. professors/publishers there are in attendance.

Interesting panel on “How Many Readers is Enough” with outstanding insights by Read More 

The Art of Being Still as a Writer

The Art of Being Still, by Silas House

"We writers must learn how to become still in our heads, to achieve the sort of stillness that allows our senses to become heightened. The wonderful nonfiction writer Joyce Dyer refers to this as seeing like an animal… We writers must become multitaskers who can be still in our heads while also driving safely to work, while waiting to be called “next” at the D.M.V., while riding the subway or doing the grocery shopping or walking the dogs or cooking supper or mowing our lawns.
We are a people who are forever moving, who  Read More 

“A Most Expensive Book” in the Library Battle

The news behind the upcoming auctioning of one of the first public library books printed in the US isn’t the price it’s going to fetch. The important issue, to me, is the shrinking public access to libraries and resources. Privatization is a genuine threat to the public access that is at the heart of our definition of the ‘written record.’ Deep in this story is the report that libraries are selling off volumes which leaves great work out of the public record and thereby lost to time. And shrinking budgets which sounds to me as if there’s less money for acquisition as well. The written record of human existence cannot be left into the hands of people with money, or companies who could easily profit from currently non-profit ventures such as Google’s current endeavor. Like the roads and the military, the written record of global life must be available to all.

The American Library Association itself has issued a task force report (alas, no link is provided in the NYTimes article) called “Keep Public Libraries Public.” I’d love to see their plan of action.
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Chatting with Friends in #MyWritingProcess Blog Hop

I love a good conversation among friends and that’s how #MyWritingProcess blog tour is shaping up. Many thanks to Nathan ‘Burgoine for his candid and insightful entry, for tagging me, and for being a kind, gracious, witty and talented friend. Did I mention talented? Very talented!

What am I working on?
After immersing myself in the Middle Ages in both The Mandrake Broom and A Slender Tether, I’ve most recently come back to the present (as much as any of us writers are ever actually in the physical moment – and when is that? At work?) And I’ve been trying to come up with another word for ‘work’ when it applies to writing so I don’t feel as if I’m constantly at work. Playing? Sounds silly. Crafting? Sounds like Play-do. You see my quandry…and how easily I’m distracted which is a difficult trait for a writer who has 100,000 words to stick into some semblance of order. Alright, back to the question. My new piece is a series of stories set over 40 years around a small lake in Northern Michigan, an eerie collection, I think. Love, detrayal, an explosion, family dynamics, a soldier gone mad, the exquisite (to me) landscape of pines and loons. At this point it’s called The Disappearing Andersons of Loon Lake, though my editors/publishers are mostly (and thankfully) responsible for the titles of my books. I’ve given each of the stories a different date in time because I realized that because of the profound impact of the cell phone, some of the plot lines couldn’t be modern. And though I’m told that story collections don’t sell (to which I point out that the Nobel Prize just went to a short story writer) I persevere.

And then, of course, as I shipped the collection out to my private editor, the Muse delivered  Read More 

Would You Want an Android Promoting You? Phillip K Dick's Head Lost

I’m struck by the recent book review of “How to Build an Android: The True Story of Philip K. Dick’s Robotic Resurrection” and I’ve been puzzling over some questions it raises for writers.

First, the facts. The book “explains how a team of researchers at the Univ. of Memphis collaborated in 2005 with an artist and robotics experts to create what was then the most sophisticated android anywhere, a replica of the head of science fiction writer Philip K. Dick” (science fiction author of Blade Runner etc.). The android’s face was sculpted with a skin-like polymer, his non-functioning body was draped in Dick’s clothing donated by the family, and his speech was assembled “through an immense database of Dick’s own words as expressed during his lifetime in books and interviews…Phil could spit out an accurate Dick answer to a specific question if it found a match.” Or he was programmed to improvise.

But here’s the part straight out of a Dick novel: his creator was taking the head to Google for a meeting  Read More